Barack Obama: Race, Class, and Legacy

Obama1Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States, winning terms in 2008 and 2012. In my book Black Writing from Chicago, I included a passage from his best-selling autobiography Dreams from My Father.  That passage focused on his first meeting with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who subsequently became his pastor at Chicago’s Trinity Church, then subsequently not his pastor after videos—edited and, many said, without proper context—surfaced of a controversial Wright sermon.  His break with Wright was one of the crises of Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The passage I chose also highlighted a major theme of my book: the tension between class and race, and the fraught territory of Black middleclassness in particular.  When Obama brings up class, the jovial first meeting with Wright takes a serious turn.  “We don’t buy into these false divisions here,” Wright says sharply.  “It’s not about income, Barack.  Cops don’t check my bank account when they pull me over and make me spread-eagle against the car.  These miseducated brothers, like that sociologist at the University of Chicago, talking about ‘the declining significance of race.’  Now, what country is he living in?”  And Obama takes special note of something in Trinity’s brochure.  “There was one particular passage in Trinity’s brochure that stood out, though,” writes Obama, “a commandment more self-conscious in its tone, requiring greater elaboration.  ‘A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness,’ the heading read.  ‘While it is permissible to chase ‘middleincomeness’ with all our might,’ the text stated, those blessed with the talent or good fortune to achieve Obama-Precludedsuccess in the American mainstream must avoid the ‘psychological entrapment of Black ‘middleclassness’ that hypnotizes the successful brother or sister into believing they are better than the rest and teaches them to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘US’!’”  This tension between race and class was, for many, including myself, one of the dominating factors of Obama’s Presidency.  Though he sometimes engaged race directly in ways no other President had, perhaps his status as the first Black President actually precluded him from taking the nation deeper into confronting racism—what many have called our country’s “original sin”—and forced him to focus more on class instead.  Or maybe he actually believed class was more important, an attitude Americans would readily embrace, as most of us would rather talk about anything—anything—but race.

Born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, Obama also spent some of his younger years in Indonesia with his mother and step-father, Lolo.  After graduating from Columbia University he became a community organizer in Chicago, working in some of the poorest neighborhoods on the South Side.  He left Chicago for three years to obtain a law degree at Harvard, where he was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.  In 1992 he married Michelle Robinson, a life-long resident of the South Side and another Harvard Law School graduate, and directed Illinois Project VOTE, registering 150,000 new voters.  He practiced Civil Rights law, became a senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago, and served three terms in the state senate before winning a landslide victory for the U.S. Senate in November 2004.  Earlier that year, the keynote address he gave at the Democratic National Convention propelled him to stardom.  Even before he arrived in Washington to take his Senate seat, talk of an eventual run for the presidency swirled, and he spent some time in his early Senate career lowering expectations.  I saw him in early February 2005 at a town meeting he held at my college in Naperville, Illinois, and he joked that a Senate colleague had said to him, “Barack, you’ve been here a week already, and we still have poverty and unemployment.  You’re not living up to the hype!”


He wrote Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance—a wonderfully articulate, probing memoir—in 1995, long before he was such a luminous national figure. Sandwiched between details of his origins and his trip to Kenya to trace his father’s roots is the story of his coming to Chicago, where he first fully worked out his desire to be a community organizer.

It’s too early to gain a deep perspective on Obama’s Presidential legacy, though an early poll of respected historians and analysts has put him as #14 on a list of the most significant/successful Presidents, a ranking Fox News—in its typically ridiculous way—interpreted as a sign of sure failure. Another recent poll, decidedly less rigorous, has him ranked as #12 on a list of the most popular Presidents in American History, and this year a Pew Research poll puts him #1 on a list that asked people to rank the “Best or Second Best President in My Lifetime.”  His reputation has risen since 2011 when only 20% named him as such.  In seven years that number has doubled to 40%, and even Republican appreciation has risen from 5% to 13%.  A quick review of several polls—scholarly, popular, and in-between—seems to place him somewhere between the 11th and 14th best President in U.S. history.  Today, at least.

Obama-Jesus2I’ve often looked back at my Obama choices of passages for Black Writing from Chicago with some degree of wonder, not knowing, for example, that months after the book came out his relationship with Jeremiah Wright would play so large in his Presidential bid.  Speaking of legacy, I also find it a bit eerie that I end with Obama’s reflections on the sudden death of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor.  He describes the turmoil so well, and I ended the excerpt as he leaves a Chicago City Council meeting after witnessing so much wheeling, dealing, and power-brokering.

“I pushed through the crowds that overflowed into the street,” he writes, “and began walking across Daley Plaza toward my car. The wind whipped up cold and sharp as a blade, and I watched a hand-made sign tumble past me.  HIS SPIRIT LIVES ON, the sign read in heavy block letters. And beneath the words that picture I had seen so many times while waiting for a chair in Smitty’s Barbershop: the handsome, grizzled face; the indulgent smile; the twinkling eyes; now blowing across the empty space, as easily as an autumn leaf.”  As it turns out, Harold Washington’s legacy really does live on—and powerfully, too—as it appears Obama’s may also, in ways more fundamental than most of us, conservative or liberal, have yet to fully understood.

♦  Go to a list of Black Writers on this site.

  For more on Black middleclassness, read my Introduction to Black Writing from Chicago, and the intros I wrote to writers like Leanita McClain.  Related to all this is The U.S.’s growing income inequality.  See “Graphic Inequality” for more on this issue.

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Climbing Bryan’s Mountain, 2018

This is part of a series of excerpts from my Sedona journal, especially about my time on Bryan’s Mountain (Bell Rock to the rest of the world).  Go to the series’ Lead Post, and read about Emmanuel House, the living memorial started by Rick and Desiree Guzman to honor Bryan Emmanuel Guzman.

A fire in the distance.

A fire in the distance.

August 5-6.  There’s a “just right” vibe in Sedona, related to that “there are no coincidences” vibe. The people you just “happen to meet,” the Red Rock views, the brilliant night sky—all just right, as they should be, and always are. But this year I’ve been noticing things that aren’t quite right.  Coming into our place Saturday night, I was pleased by how clean and put together it looked—but then, like every year, so many things were just out of place.  The rattan chair was crammed in the fireplace corner, and the fireplace log box belonging there was at the side of the coffee table.  Couldn’t find our guest book for the longest time, until I found it buried beneath three remotes in the remotes box.  The silverware was all mixed up, our primary set stuffed in the back of the drawer, the cheap, second-hand, supplementary stuff in the appropriate slots instead.  And, as always, the towels and rugs were all a jumble, especially the small rugs, which were in all the wrong rooms.

I have still not found the hummingbird feeder.

An Indian man sets up his table of hats next to the head of a trail that winds around Bell Rock and Court House Butte.  He’s been selling there almost as long as we’ve had our place in Sedona, but this year as I stopped to say a quick Hello, he looked thinner, and my Hello brought him out of what seemed to be a stupor.  He recognized me right away, though, saying, “I haven’t seen you for a long time,” but his speech seemed more slurred and low.

Selling hats nearly 15 years.

Selling hats nearly 15 years.

…Bryan’s tree looked fine, though it seemed drier.  Everything seemed drier.  The grasses around his tree weren’t as vigorous, and the winds whipped hotter and drier than I ever remembered.  I didn’t seem to be sweating enough, and what I did sweat dried so quickly it hardly cooled.  The usually crystal air and skies seemed hazy.  Then in the distance I saw the culprit: a wild fire burning in some hills way off to the north, white and dark smoke churning upwards.

This has been one of the busiest years of my life.  In a way, we’re still recovering from May 2017, when I was in a hectic teaching term, Rick was running for mayor…and we moved!  The house we bought sold in 8 hours, ours sold in 23, so we threw everything in boxes and whisked it off, no time to sort anything.  Our heads were spinning and haven’t stopped yet.  We just start sorting this July, but not til after I helped build stuff for Linda’s biggest volunteer party of the year, followed days after by the huge retirement party she threw for me. We wall papered, trimmed bushes, tidied as best we could, did food, then at the last minute changed locations because of horrid weather.  I’m not officially retiring until late November, but all the kids were going to be in town late-June/early-July, so we went ahead, and lots of people came, and we wound up absolutely exhausted, crabby, and then entertained our Jersey grandkids, Liam and Maddy, for eight days after that.  People ask me all the time what I’m going to do in retirement, and all I can think of is to say, Rest.  What I’ve described here is less than half of it.

All six + one due in September.

All six + one due in September.

The big payoff was having all the family around:  all six grandkids for the very first time, seven if you count Dan and Tara’s newest…due in early September.  When we took pictures of them, we had Tara there, too, gently cradling her growing belly.  As grand as all that was, it was also tiring, and the kids were tired, too, as they were working on their Mom’s place, getting it ready to sell, and getting her ready to move to a smaller place, something easier for her to handle.

I arrived hugely out of sorts, with a keener eye for things out of place.  Still, it’s not all just a state of mind.  Something else: somehow our swamp cooler didn’t get serviced and turned on, so I bought an extra fan and set up another blowing over a large, wet towel to try to keep the heat down until we can get someone over here.  I can barely keep the inside temperature below 89 degrees, and that wildfire in the distant mountains is as real as real can be. As I write this on August 6th, a smoky haze has drifted over the whole area.

August 9.  Things feeling a little more normal.  For one thing, the very air itself.  The normal humidity in the high desert here is around 30%.  When I arrived on August 4th, and until today, it’s been less than half that!  Sitting up by Bryan’s tree today, I saw no smoke from the distant fire, and feeling the air on my skin, all I kept thinking was, “That’s better. That feels right.”  Aaron asked if I could send him the tree’s exact GPS coordinates.  Sitting by his tree, I did, and heard my phone beep moments after I sent them.  He texted back: “I have been thinking about ways to get a ‘Bryan tattoo’ and I want to just get the coordinates of his tree where his ashes were. A nice way to do one that isn’t cheesy.”

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Lucy Parsons: Increasing the Sum of Human Happiness

Parsons1Born into slavery in Texas, Lucy Parsons sometimes shunned her African-American identity, claiming her Native and Mexican-American heritage for self-protection instead.  However, her marriage to the white Albert Parsons so clearly defied Southern anti-miscegenist society that they were forced to flee, winding up in Chicago in 1873, where she and her husband’s anarchist, labor activism reached its height, particularly in the infamous Chicago Haymarket riots of 1886.  Albert was one of the men eventually hung for allegedly being part of a conspiracy, and Lucy Parsons herself barely escaped execution.  A mighty opponent of poverty, racism, and capitalism all her life, Lucy Parsons was known as a fiery orator and a skillful organizer of workers, and into her late 70’s she lectured throughout the country championing free speech and fair working conditions.

She was also a writer, but most of her work and her library quickly and mysteriously disappeared immediately after the house fire that killed her, and rumors linger that it was confiscated by government authorities that always kept close watch on her.  In 1889 she wrote The Life of Albert Parsons, with Brief History of the Labor Movement in America, a biography which indicted the injustices that led to her husband’s execution.

Parsons4Haymarket, a new folk musical—(read my review of it Here)—focuses heavily on the contrast between Lucy and Albert concerning violence, the latter always pleading for non-violence.  Lucy sees it differently.  Her most famous writing is the essay “To Tramps,” which advocates direct violence against the state for the redress of wrongs against workers and the poor.  It ends with the famous imperative: “Learn to use explosives!”  Because it is readily available on the internet, for my book Black Writing from Chicago, I chose to represent Lucy Parsons with an interview she gave to the New York World, an interview Albert Parsons included in his Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis published in 1887.  In a brief editorial introduction to this piece, he calls this “the most succinct account we have ever seen” of the philosophy and goals of anarchism.

May 1986, 100-Year Commemoration of the "Haymarket Affair" at Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Part, IL.  Lucy and Albert Parsons are buried here.

May 1986, 100-Year Commemoration of the “Haymarket Affair” at Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Part, IL. Lucy and Albert Parsons are buried here.

In a recent email, one of my former students, James Stewart, tells of using Black Writing from Chicago in class, mentioning Parsons as one of the highlights.  “The amount of times I’ve pored over that book for inspiration and ideas for my class along with my own personal writing has been invaluable. I may never have come across Leanita McClain, Lucy Parsons, or Frank London Brown without it and what a shame that would have been. The class in which the student discussed Parsons and Hampton was one of the absolute highlights. To hear freshman from various backgrounds debating the merits of violent and non-violent revolution, along with America’s constant struggle against white supremacy definitely helped give me hope in the ongoing struggle for justice and equality, which was hard to come by this year.”

The interview I used for Black Writing from Chicago begins: “This is the evolutionary stage of anarchism.  The revolutionary period will be reached when the great middle classes are practically extinct. The great monopolies and corporations and syndicates met with on every hand are now rapidly extinguishing the middle classes, which we regard as the one great bulwark between the monopoly or wealthy class and the great producing or working class.”  This has such a contemporary ring that my students are always shocked that the interview was given in the late 1880’s!  And though a great deal of Parsons’ fire came from her not shying away from violence, this piece shows the larger context of her stance.  It’s a judicious use of violence.  And “anarchism” appears here as a political vision where politics isn’t totally abandoned but is radically de-centered.  It also places great store by guilds and unions.  “We hold,” says Parsons, “that the granges, trade-unions, Knights of Labor assemblies, etc., are the embryonic groups of the ideal anarchist society.”  Towards what end?  “Drudgery, such as exists to-day, will be reduced to a minimum. The children will be taken from the factories and sent to museums and schools…people will have more time for pleasure and cultivation of the mind…we claim that the sum of human happiness will be increased, while the drudgery and poverty and misery of the world of today, all due to the powerful concentration of capital, will be done away with.”

Such visions led to many practical reforms.  Anarchism as political philosophy has obvious shortcomings, but now in an age where the concentration of capital has reached heights greater than even she imagined—heights in many ways exceeding even the Great Depression*—we could do worse than turn at least a partial ear to Parson’s call for an equality that would increase “the sum of human happiness.”

* Read “Graphic Inequality,” about growing income inequality in America.

Go to a list of Black Writers on this site, and to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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